Benazir Jatoi

Imran Khan lost the parliamentary Vote of No Confidence (VNC) on 10th April, after almost four years as prime minister. The constitutional right of the opposition to bring this vote is not new to our political system, having been introduced against most sitting prime ministers in the past. Yet this is the only time it has been successful by 174 votes out of 342.

Now Khan attempts to show street power. He has drawn crowds and interestingly, many overseas Pakistanis have come out against his ousting, accepting him as an honest politician on a crusade to make Pakistan independent from foreign interference and corrupt politicians of the past. Despite his crowd pulling ability, Imran Khan and his PTI are not safe for Pakistan’s democracy; and both those in Pakistan and overseas Pakistanis, protesting from the comforts of liberal democracies, should know why:

Khan has undermined Pakistan’s institutions and processes that oversee and uphold the country’s fragile democracy. His worst onslaught has been on parliament. During his almost four years in power, Khan has shown a distain for engaging with parliament and the parliamentary processes. He has often not shown up to parliamentary sessions, refusing to go because, he says, there are chor (thieves) there — his reference to political parties in opposition. His party has also felt unable, and to an extent intimidated, to engage with the cacophonous parliamentary process of introducing laws. This inability and unwillingness to comprehend that parliament is the supreme law-making body led to over 50 laws being passed through presidential ordinances, instead of regular and ordinary law-making through parliament. This has meant bypassing the constitutional requirement for Pakistan’s democracy of law-making through scrutiny, debate and consensus. Because the primary prerogative of the legislature is being usurped (and in that breath being undermined), the presidential power of ordinance making is very limited, to be exercised only if parliament is not in session, and when waiting for the next session of parliament may cause ‘irreparable loss to the people of Pakistan’. No such circumstance existed when PTI used the route of presidential powers to pass laws.

PTI does not know how to lose — a necessary ingredient for democracies to function. When the constitutional VNC was brought against Khan, he did everything possible to subvert it, and in the process shook the country’s brittle democratic structures, its aftershocks yet to be felt. To hang on to power, PTI orchestrated a 12-minute parliamentary session achieving the following: the vote was dismissed, the constitution was violated, and those that favoured the vote were branded disloyal to the country (because voting at a time of a foreign conspiracy to oust Khan was anything but loyal). This process has firmly planted the ghaddari seed — an accusation often banded about by non-democratic forces on civilians — in a democratic space. While an American conspiracy for regime change is not a wild idea — examples of American interference in other countries’ politics are abundant in the Global South — there is no concrete evidence of this imminent threat towards Pakistan. Evoking the narrative of a Western conspiracy to avoid the VNC makes for effective election sloganeering but undermines integrity of parliament and the constitution and creates major politically instability.

Khan refuses to accept the important constitutional role of being in political opposition. He is a natural agitator and effective at questioning those in power. The problem is he refuses to do this as leader of the opposition. Instead, he prefers headline seeking, emotion evoking, rancorous street protests. The present coalition government, an alliance of various political parties, now sits in parliament without an effective opposition to challenge and hold it to account. It is the unravelling of the fundamental equation that those in power and those across the aisle in the opposition together make a functioning and healthy democracy. Khan’s colourful, crowded and coordinated street protests may create a façade that democracy is in action, when this very act by Khan, at a time when parliament is sitting and functional, is harmful to democracy.

Khan has all the ingredients of a populist leader and populism endangers democracies. As Cas Mudde, the author of Populism: A Very Short Introduction says: “Populists are dividers, not uniters” splitting society into “two homogenous and antagonistic groups: the pure people on the one end and the corrupt elite on the other.” PTI’s pre-2018 election campaign and the narrative throughout their time in government has been removing corrupt politicians before their promised change is possible. Populists also choose to focus only on themselves — apart from Khan always talking about himself, PTI folklore is also all about Khan the messiah, the crusader, the saviour. To achieve the promise of Riyasat-e-Medina, Khan subverts any democratic requirements that get in his way including targeting political parties on trumped-up charges of corruption; sustained attacks on the media; undermining legally formed watchdog bodies. Even the Supreme Court was not spared through a sustained campaign against a judge deemed too independent. Under the spirit of usurping all power, PTI attempted questioning the 18th constitutional amendment that devolves power to ensure more autonomous provinces, more dialogue-based approach between the federal and provincial units and less top to bottom control and centralisation. The 18th amendment makes Pakistan more democratic and less susceptible to coups and undemocratic takeovers. It is no surprising then that PTI questioned it.

Khan has sowed seeds of division in an already fractured society. True to populist form Khan and his followers frame his political career as a moral obligation, one that will save Pakistanis from the elite status quo and land us in a utopia. Khan’s success in spinning a narrative of division and sabotage of democratic processes has meant that young people in Pakistan, and overseas Pakistanis who live in democratic societies where the rule of law reigns supreme, will never understand why democracy is important for us. When Pakistanis celebrate Khan’s subversion of the constitution as ‘outmanoeuvring’ and ‘outwitting’ the opposition, we should remember that pupils will do what they see. After four military coups, three failed attempts at a coup, and 34 years out of 74 years of living under dictatorships, Pakistanis understand that the rules are meant to be broken. The difference this time around is the flagrant breaking of the rules is not a man in uniform. In civilian guise PTI, under Khan, attempts what Pakistanis associate with the establishment’s version of politics, making us even more suspicious of who to trust.

The constitution, the rule of law and democratic norms and systems are fundamental for Pakistan’s survival. Both Khan’s rhetoric and action show there is not much difference between him and previous military dictators. Khan alludes, in letter and spirit, to the likes of Ayub and Zia, both dictators who violated the constitution and undermined the rule of law. Modi is now who Khan praises in public, showing how he views authoritarianism as ideal. PTI seeking elections through the Azadi march is just a red herring. The reality is that power, not democracy, is the thing important to Imran Khan. This may be beneficial for PTI and its supporters, it is very detrimental to Pakistan and its future.

The writer is a barrister and UK solicitor who works with Aurat Foundation on law and governance issues

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